Small Wars: Serving the National Interests of Pax Americana
Review by Thomas E. Hanson
The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power By Max Boot. (New York: Basic Books, 2002. Pp. xx, 410. $30 cloth.)
“Boot… persuasively supports his thesis that the ‘small war’ has historically been one of the most effective ways of furthering American interests…. [He] sees the judicious application of military force as the only option in regions where diplomatic or economic incentives fail to persuade.”
Although Max Boot’s latest book makes extensive use of both military and diplomatic history, it is not a narrative history of the growth of American influence around the world. Instead, this work is a book-length editorial encouraging the robust exercise of American military power in support of national interests.
Boot uses a chronological framework, beginning with Washington’s administration, to discuss in broad terms the use of military power abroad by American presidents in pursuit of national goals. Although his coverage is uneven and in some places serves merely as illustration, it persuasively supports his thesis that the “small war” has historically been one of the most effective ways of furthering American interests. Boot sees the judicious application of military force as the only option in regions where diplomatic or economic incentives fail to persuade. In making his argument, Boot specifically challenges the validity of the Weinberger-Powell doctrine, calling it a flawed and potentially dangerous policy to follow in a time of political, strategic, and economic turbulence. He also asserts that America’s senior military and political leadership—by a too-assiduous adherence to the strictures of this doctrine—are guilty of encouraging Osama bin Laden to strike at targets in the United States. Boot justifies this by arguing that such a policy creates the perception of American military impotence against any threat short of World War III
A journalist by training, Boot brings the investigative reporter’s knack for picking out the most damning examples to illustrate his main point that senior leaders have ignored traditional American military roles and missions. He does this most effectively when he takes the Defense Department to task for failing to anticipate the terrorist threats facing the United States. Summing up his argument, the author cleverly portrays retired Marine General Anthony Zinni as a penitent sinner: “My generation has not been well prepared for this future because we resisted the idea.” In Boot’s view, the United States would be better served in this “future” by a less cautious, less world opinion-sensitive approach to military interventions. He justifies his argument in terms of realpolitik: “[I]n the post-Cold War world, the price of exercising power appears low once again.” His analysis, particularly of the implications of a “zero-casualties” mentality on Washington’s credibility and the effectiveness of American military missions in trouble spots, rests on a solid factual foundation and is presented in very clear and readable prose
This book is not without shortcomings. As a narrative monograph, it adds little to the scholarly debate. Indeed, older works such as Kenneth Hagan’s This People’s Navy do a much better job relating military and naval operations to American foreign relations. The episodic nature of the narrative, in which only certain events (e.g. the Tripolitan War, the Philippine War, the Boxer Rebellion) receive detailed coverage, considerably lessen its value to students seeking a comprehensive treatment. That the book should be so limited is puzzling since the bibliography contains nearly every relevant work on the subject written in the last hundred years
Boot freely acknowledges these shortcomings, as well as his exclusive focus on overseas military operations. A detailed narrative history would exceed his stated purpose, which the reader encounters only in the concluding “lessons learned” chapters. “In the Shadow of Vietnam” highlights the corrosive effects on U.S. foreign policy of both the Vietnam experience and the strategic limitations of the Powell Doctrine. “In Defense of Pax Americana” argues that—rather than aberrations—the peace-keeping, peace enforcement, and humanitarian missions of the 1900s represent a return to the norm. Boot argues conclusively that the nature of the U.S. military as a volunteer, professional, and self-selected social group make it uniquely capable of successfully conducting sustained operations for nebulous goals in the absence of either widespread and demonstrative public support of a clearly-enunciated timetable.
The quality of these two final chapters ensure that the book will appeal to a widely varied audience. Professional soldiers of all ranks should own this volume if only for the final two chapters. They provide a powerful counterweapon to opponents of “Operations Other Than War,” who restrict their definition of military roles and missions to the battlefield. Civilian policymakers should carefully read it to understand the historical uses of military power on behalf of national interests. Finally, students of American diplomatic history would benefit from reading this work because of its unabashedly orthodox interpretation of American foreign relations. Though clothed in a post-revisionist analytical style, Boot ultimately sees the United States as an altruistic agent in international affairs. As the world’s strongest military and economic power, America has the right and obligation to act in its own interests (however broadly defined) in whatever manner it sees fit.
Major Thomas E. Hanson earned his B.A. from the University of Minnesota and his M.A. from The Ohio State University. Following his commissioning at Officer Candidate School in 1992, he commanded units in the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. He is currently an instructor in the Department of History at the United States Military Academy.